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In the pursuit of success, don’t lose focus on the most important.

“If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” -Lao Tzu

What truly matters most?

As we race through life, it’s rare we pause long enough to honestly consider this question. A single conversation with a man I’d never met before – and would never see again – challenged me to not only ask the question, but attempt to live the answer. Let me explain.

Years ago, while working as a part-time hospital chaplain I visited with an elderly gentleman suffering with congestive heart failure. As I sat at his bedside, we chatted about baseball, his failing health, and how he felt looking back over his life.

Seeing the youth fresh in my face, he thought perhaps he could impart some advice.

“John, talk to me a few years ago, and I’d tell you about all I accomplished in life. I’d tell you about the business I’d built, the successes I celebrated, the effort required and the payoff received.”

He paused and coughed. His breathing was labored and the simple act of speaking required a Herculean effort.

Straining, he continued sharing. “But along the way, I also lost some things in the pursuit of that success. I put in so many hours that I barely saw my family. I claimed to be doing it all for them, in the pursuit of building a better life, but I lost my way. I turned away from what’s truly important. With all the pressure, I depended on smoking and alcohol to reduce the chronic stress. Eventually my wife left me. My kids barely know me.”

I felt his loneliness fill the room. I didn’t know what to say.

He took a deep breath and sighed. “John, I spent a lifetime sprinting up the ladder.” He paused and looked out the window. “Only to discover after making it to the very top, I had the damn thing leaned against the wrong wall.”

I’ll never forget that last sentence. Or the dispirited tone with which he delivered it.

Now, let me be clear: I love climbing. I partner with organizations to increase top-line revenue, bottom-line profitability and employee engagement. I speak with audiences to wake them up from accidental living, to encourage them to pursue big goals, and ultimately lead lives of impact. Climbing the ladder isn’t the problem.

The problem is when the effort to ascend higher keeps us from noticing where we are and why we’re climbing in the first place. The issue is when we are so focused on the next rung, the next step, the next goal, that we become blind to the blessings of today.

I’m not suggesting we put the ladder away. But it’s time to pay attention to how we spend our days and where exactly we are climbing. To examine what success truly looks like and how to most effectively engage in this moment. That’s all we really have.

Our greatest fear should not be whether we will climb high enough or fail at what we’re doing or fall from the top. No, our greatest fear should be succeeding at the stuff that just doesn’t matter.

It’s time to stop missing what matters. It’s time to relearn how to be fully present and connect with those we love, the work we do, and the life we lead.

It’s time to recognize that our life is finite and how we choose to spend it matters profoundly.

Because nothing is more painful than gaining the world at the expense of losing the very things that matter most.

This is your day. Live Inspired.

4 replies on “What Matters Most?”

Being busy and the climbing the corporate ladder is right where the devil wants us. We may have worldly success and yet do we truly know Jesus?

This story really hit home! My dad, who passed away 40 yrs ago at age 54, was very successful in his career – always putting “family” second stating he was doing it all for us! Well, he died and we never truly got to know him. I would have given it all up just to have TIME with my dad! I hope many people read this and take a second look at themselves and start to enjoy life before it’s too late for them!

WOW! Thank you John. I celebrate that this gentleman had the humility to share and review with you these important lessons and in turn, you could share with all of us. Blessings for a great week ahead.

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Live Inspired Together is a community of friends changing the world together, starting with their own. In a world that often focuses on negativity, John O’Leary - Live Inspired shares the other side of the story through his member-supported channels (essays, Live Inspired Podcast, video, webcasts, social platforms) to connect our community and share inspiration and actions to live it. Support now.